A capital adventure in Vietnam

By on October 1, 2009

A few decades ago, the nation of Vietnam was synonymous with armed conflict and the horrific struggles of war. Yet the intervening years have banished the shadows of this sad chapter in Asian history and Vietnam, poised to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of its capital Hanoi next year, is once again a vibrant stop on the tourist circuit.

Vietnam is a natural choice for a family escape, with a favorable exchange rate, fantastic food, a friendly population, and loads of activities for all ages. Focus your explorations on Hanoi, the north’s main metropolis, and you’ll be treated to an energetic city that blends modern commercialism with a laid-back elegance left over from its days under French colonial rule. Delay your trip until next October and you’ll find yourself in the middle of millennial festivities as the city kicks off its 1000th birthday celebration.

Crossing the chaotic streets here may at times feel like you’re taking your life in your hands so opt instead for a cyclo ride – ask the driver to pedal you through the atmospheric streets of Hanoi’s old town and you can shop for souvenirs and visit the food markets en route. Grab a quick bowl of pho, Vietnam’s tasty national dish, before joining the locals at Hoan Kiem Lake for a picnic under the shady trees or a round of t’ai chi. When you’ve had enough of the blazing sun, hustle the kids out of the heat and into the nearby water puppet theater. Water puppets are one of northern Vietnam’s cultural specialties, and the colorful performance – complete with traditional music – is guaranteed to entertain the whole family.

If you’re keen on two-wheeled transportation, explore the surrounding countryside by bike. Guided half-day excursions leave daily from cafes in the old town to explore the rice paddies and villages near the capital. For a tastier option, older kids may want to indulge their inner Iron Chef with a cooking course at a local eatery. Or, just order up an ice cream cone or fresh fruit shake from one of the ubiquitous open-air cafes and enjoy the action on the street.

When the frenetic pace of the city becomes a bit too much, head east to the coast to take in the marvel of Halong Bay. This stunning natural wonder, named a UNESCO World Heritage sight, is best seen from the deck of a boat so don’t miss out on the overnight cruises that leave from the docks at Halong City. Out on the bay, it’s easy to imagine you’re in another world, as you glide past mysterious rock formations and into secluded coves. For adventurous explorers, most boats offer guided kayak trips in the surrounding waters and include a visit to a cave on one of the many islands. If seasickness is a problem, you can instead spend the night on Cat Ba Island, and hike through its tangled jungle interior.

If your vacation plans include cyclos, bay cruises, and the best cuisine around, head for Hanoi and get an early start on the 1000th birthday celebrations!


Languages: Vietnamese is the official language, though most citizens involved in the tourist industry are comfortable using English.

Access:  Direct flights on Vietnam Airlines and JAL make the trip between Narita and Hanoi in five hours.

Time difference: -2 hours

Currency: The dong

Climate: Hot and wet and sometimes both! Aim for the colder season. (March, April, September and October for northern Vietnam’s best weather)

Transport: Hop a ride on a cyclo in Hanoi’s old town or brave the traffic and pile the whole family onto a motorbike for a cruise around the countryside. Just follow the example of the locals … up to six passengers is a “comfortable” fit!

Best ice cream: Don’t miss out on Fanny’s creamy scoops on the west side of Hoan Kiem Lake.

About Mandy Bartok